Category Archives: politics

The Commandant by Rudolph Hoess (Book Review)

Rudolph Hoess was the SS Commandant over the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. Under his direction well over a million would die (Eichmann claimed 2.5 million!). These were not primarily enemy combatants but civilians – men, women, and children (primarily Jews).

Hoess wrote about his time at Auschwitz, not only what he did but how he thought and felt. This particular edition has been edited by Jurg Amann for length and clarity. It is a small volume of only 111 pages.

I found it highly disturbing, anxiety inducing, stomach churning – in other words, just what is needed. It is a prophylactic against future genocides, may God save us. It is an inducement to action in the present against ongoing genocides, God help us.

“But I must admit openly that the gassings had a calming effect on me…Up to this point it was not clear to me, nor to Eichmann, how the killing of the expected masses was to be done. Perhaps by gas? But how, and what kind of gas….Now I was at ease.”

– Hoess, pg. 70.

Let me digress for a moment and speak as an American Christian. I suspect that someday when God reveals to us the true nature of the good and evil which we have done in our lives we will find that our apathy stands far above and beyond so many of the sins we endeavor so faithfully to avoid today.

Further, I suspect that our myopic dedication to these rote sins is an endeavor to distract our consciences from the true nature of our own selfishness.

Lord, save me from my apathy. From my righteous indignation over the sins of others that I use to assuage my burning conscience.

Stay Informed: Why College Tuition Has Increased So Much

Frustrated Student

A topic which has garnered significant attention in recent years – and especially during the presidential campaigns – is the significant increases in college tuition and the consequent backbreaking increases in student debt.

Doug Webber (Temple University) has written an interesting analysis of the cause(s) of this situation for FiveThirtyEight (aka, Nate Silvers & co.).

The overarching message is that there is no single cause of the tuition boom. The reason for rising costs differs based on the type of institution and the state it’s in, and even varies over time. But, at least among public institutions, the dominant factor has been a steady decrease in support for higher education on the part of state legislatures.”

Prior to reading this article my uninformed pseudo-opinion was that the bulk of cost increases came from unnecessary spending. This analysis, however, forces me to rethink that viewpoint.

That said in my (humble? I hope!) opinion, there may still be room for some navel-gazing within higher ed. There are three areas that come to mind:

  1. Reducing expenditures on buildings, especially in instances where existing buildings are sufficient, or where the architecture is unnecessarily elaborate.[1]
  2. Reducing expenditures on unnecessary services, especially in cases where the educational value is questionable and/or the value in recruiting students is minimal.[2]
  3. Utilizing and contributing to open source systems, such as those available from the Kuali Foundation. The prices of higher ed software is often high while the quality of the software is low.

This said, I realize that the potential cost savings I have mentioned above will not make a huge dent in student tuitions…and I would even go so far as to say that I’m not entirely sure the money should go to tuition decreases.

In many cases the faculty and staff of an educational institution are poorly compensated. This can be a social justice issue, which by its very nature should be corrected. It also has indirect negative effects on both the institution and the students. If faculty/staff need to work second jobs to survive, this reduces their availability to the institution and to the students. Tired faculty/staff result in decreased classroom lecture quality, decreased opportunities for personal interactions with students, and increase the more base aspects of our natures (e.g., temper, apathy, etc.).

I’d love to know what you think!

  1. [1]I tend toward pragmatism, as opposed to the aesthetic – so judge the validity of this comment as you may. I’m simply saying that I think most students would prefer lower tuition over highly vaulted ceilings (which result in a significant uptick in heating/cooling costs on an indefinite basis; in addition to the extra cost in construction).
  2. [2]e.g., While I consider it important to maintain functional, clean, and quality gym equipment – the latest and greatest gadgets may not be necessary. Another example might be televisions. I’m not saying not to have them in the residence halls or in the gyms, but I do think that generally they are an unnecessary expense that causes detriment to students. e.g., Many guys I know (including myself) will be drawn to focus on a TV no matter what is on (even if it is extremely uninteresting) and this causes a deterioration in the quality of conversation that can occur and the ability to study/think. As such, I’d suggest they be in recreational areas but avoided in most other areas.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.[1]
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.[2] (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?

  1. [1]Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
  2. [2]Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264)

The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden (Book Review)

I just completed Thomas F. Madden’s The New Concise History of the Crusades, a nice hardcover edition published by Barnes & Noble in 2007. The main text clocks in a little over 200 pages and it covers the earlier crusades in some detail with attention also given to various crusades within Europe and a brief analysis of the impact of the crusades in the conclusion.

Book Cover for The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden
Book Cover for The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden

I had previously read James Reston Jr.’s Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, which I enjoyed thoroughly in spite of some obvious biases and liberties taken throughout the volume. I found Madden’s work similarly satisfactory – though again leaving me with a feeling that I read material written from a specific direction and implying certain things I, as a amateur, am not qualified to comment upon.

The two works may be complementary, in that Madden and Reston Jr. seem to be coming from somewhat opposing perspectives, enough so that Madden specifically calls out Reston Jr.’s work as “simply retell[ing] a story that crusade historians have long ago discarded.” (pg. 217)

The features of the book which I enjoyed the most where its fluid narrative which maintained a good level of readability while addressing complex situations spanning hundreds of years. The book also includes some beautifully clear (black and white) maps of the crusades which are extremely helpful, in my opinion, in understanding where everything occurred.

What disappointed me in the work is that Madden seems to be trying to provide some social commentary on contemporary Christian/Islamic relations but fails to do so clearly enough. I can infer his meaning, as others have done – but I would have liked such an analysis to have been more thorough or abandoned completely.

I looked at several reviews of the work to ensure it wasn’t overly biased, and it appears that it falls within acceptable boundaries of diversity in opinion among scholars. I’ve included links to those reviews below.

Gaining a Little Perspective Through History

I am skeptical of the idea, popular especially among evangelical Christians, that society is in a sharp downward spiral – particularly American society. This has resulted not from reading one or two specific volumes but from reading a wide variety of historical literature…and it comes not from volumes attempting to make such an argument but from volumes which incidentally address moral issues in their historical accounts. [Incidentally, my interest in history has revolved for some time to some extent around an understanding of the sociological and psychological…particularly, in understanding the differences, similarities, causes, and effects of behavior in the past and the present…]

A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.
A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.

[I think elder generations look at younger generations frequently and abhor their moral degeneracy (e.g. profanity, sexual looseness, school violence) while younger generations gaze in confusion and disgust at the moral lapses of the elder generations (e.g. racism, genocide, hypocrisy). I’m not sure either is inferior or superior to the other, rather I hypothesize that history is somewhat cyclical and that the changes reflect difference emphases on moral depravity rather than an increase or decrease in overall depravity.]

Add to this pile an example par excellence in Anthony Summers’ tome Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers takes several years to write each of his books, spends a massive amount of time researching and interviewing as he prepares the volumes, and the sheer amount of knowledge he manages to acquire in this process is clear in this volume in the text itself but also in the extensive end-notes and bibliographical sources he provides.

Let me share just a few representative examples out of so many that this volume contains of moral degeneracy:

  • There was something really wrong with John F. Kennedy. He was addicted to sex or women or something in a way I’ve seldom heard before (e.g. far worse than Bill Clinton)…I knew he had been one to ‘sleep around’ but I had no idea the extent…nor the reckless way in which his actions endangered the nation (nor that it included prostitutes). [This was apparently a pervasive issue for the Kennedy’s, Joe Kennedy’s (the father) sexual exploits are well-known, and Robert Kennedy doesn’t emerge unscathed either.]
  • While still controversial, it seems fairly clear, that for all Martin Luther King Jr.’s positive attributes and accomplishments that he also was a frequent philanderer. As a pastor, I find this especially disconcerting. [The evidence for these sexual improprieties was presented to newspapers – for JFK, MLK, etc. but at this time would not be printed or acknowledged…which to me raises the question – how much have these sort of things increased in frequency and how much where they simply ignored in the past?]
  • Summers makes a strong case that J. Edgar Hoover persecuted homosexuals so vehemently because he himself was one and wanted to reduce suspicions regarding his own sexuality via this persecution. Further, Hoover appears to have been involved in pedophiliac relationships with teenage boys. [It is worth noting that homosexuality is not a cause of pedophilia. Pedophilia is frighteningly common among heterosexuals.]
  • The overwhelming prevalence of bomb threats and actual bombings (domestic terrorism). [Compare this especially to the school shootings of contemporary society.]
  • The prevalence of organized crime and its close ties with many significant political figures (including Hoover, JFK). [Gang violence is horrifying, but I have high doubts that the level of sophistication is anywhere near that achieved by the mafia in its heyday.]
  • The extent of wiretapping, strong-arming, blackmail, violence, and other techniques to quell political opponents. [While I won’t make any excuses for the extent of contemporary abuses of power in observing American citizens by governmental powers, I will note that it appears to be largely passive in nature whereas in the past it was oftentimes active (and violently so).]
  • The extent to which racism permeated official government institutions as well as society at large. [Traditionally northerners sometimes perceive racism as a ‘Southern’ problem – but racism was deeply embedded in the north as well…and sadly, is still a much bigger problem than we oftentimes care to admit…if you doubt me, see the Newark (New Jersey) riots of 1967.]
  • The hypocritical behavior of many of our best leaders. [I am not upset that these individuals, for example, were excessively profane and vulgar in their speech, but rather the hypocritical manner in which they publicly derided such behavior while privately engaging in it to the hilt.]
  • The many disconcerting questions remaining around the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, and even J. Edgar Hoover – questions which raise the possibility of involvement by government officials (sometimes at the highest levels) as well as organized crime (in collusion with government officials). [The implications here are that the government was potentially not nearly as controlled by democratic principles as we would like to imagine. See also the prevalence of organized crime mentioned previously.]

Reading this list should clue you in that this read is not entirely pleasant and for those who find profanity disturbing in their reading – this book is not for you. The profanity while historically accurate (e.g. direct quotes) is pervasive…and while Summers never seeks to titillate in describing the sexual behavior of various individuals, the presence of immoral sexual behavior is also pervasive.

My main suggestion, should the book be rewritten is that some of the material be moved into the end notes. For example, Summers gives numerous in-text examples of how individuals perceived other individuals (e.g. how JFK and Nixon perceived J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa), a representative example or two could be given and an end note then referenced which provides the more exhaustive list that is currently in-text.

[Let me conclude by noting what I believe is the ‘take-away’ from my hypothesis that society tends to run in a circular manner of immorality, in which the shape of immorality changes from generation to generation rather than the amount of immorality (and I do think there are exceptions, I just think we are horribly inclined to view every other generation as ‘worse’ than ourselves b/c their immorality is different than our own). I do not mean this to be a ‘then we shouldn’t worry about our own immorality.’ Rather it is a call to mind our own immorality…rather than focusing on other’s, or as Christ told us – to take the log out of our own eye before attempting to take the speck out of another’s.

It is easy for individuals in each generation to become incensed at those in another for the failures they have or are committing morally…and doing so puts the generations at odds…but this stirs up anger and resentment and does nothing to clear up the issues of immorality.

In general, we would do better to remove judgment on whose sin is worse and instead focus on what the sins of our generation are and how we can address them.]

[For those interested in examining, proving, or disproving my hypothesis, a few of the other works which have been influential in my forming these conclusions include (a) Christian Scripture (compare what is taught versus what is lived), (b) John Toland’s Adolf Hitler, (c) John Toland’s Empire of the Rising Sun, (d) William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (e) Jeff Shaara’s Revolutionary War (Rise to Rebellion, The Glorious Cause) and Civil War (Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure) novels, and (f) H.W. Brand’s The Money Men.]

Bill Gates and Mosquitos

Bill Gates has a long history. I remember reading a biography of him when I was a teenager. At that point Gates was both respected and hated. Microsoft had an iron fist on much of the software market in so many ways and used its weight to crush opposition. Since then Gates seems to be a different man – a much more caring and philanthropic man.

It may have been an article in Newsweek I read a few years back that talked about Melinda Gates (Bill’s wife) and the significant influence she has had upon him positively in these regards. Whatever the reasoning, I have a lot of respect for what Gates is doing these days in a variety of fields – not the least of which is battling disease.

As part of this battle Gates has launched a “Mosquito Week” on his blog to go alongside the well-known “Shark Week” that debuts each year on television (and which I never watch) in an attempt to raise awareness of the threat mosquitoes pose.

He includes a fascinating infographic which I’ve embedded below. HT to Andrew Vogel for posting it via Facebook and thus bringing it to my attention.

An infographic from Bill Gates on the deadliest animals in the world.
An infographic from Bill Gates on the deadliest animals in the world.

My Experience with Healthcare.gov

I’m a geek – so of course I wanted to test out the healthcare.gov site immediately after it launched – and failed. First I wasn’t able to connect to the site and eventually when I did connect to the site it would let me go through the profile process but once it attempted to verify my identity it would drop me into purgatory and leave me there – forever and ever and ever (literally, I could leave the site and come back days later and I’d still be stuck there).

Screenshot of Healthcare.gov upper front page.
Screenshot of Healthcare.gov upper front page.

I tried a couple times creating, deleting, recreating, on various days and over various months – no luck. Finally I decided to call the phone number and admit that I, an IT guy, couldn’t get the site to work for me. The phone was picked up fairly rapidly and I was led somewhat painfully through providing all the information I had already provided numerous times via the site. At the end I was given an application ID number which the representative informed me I should “enter on the site” and it would show my enrollment – but that sometimes it took up to 24 hours for the change to happen on the site.

I grimaced at the 24 hour statement. While I was on the phone I attempted to pull up the application and of course it didn’t work. I had a pretty good feeling that if it didn’t work then it wasn’t going to work in 24 hours – and I was correct. The next day it still couldn’t find my application ID and weeks and even a month or two later it still could not find the application ID.

People have been noting how few younger people have been signing up through healthcare.gov and I wonder – does the system, for whatever reason, have problems with younger individuals? I don’t mean that it is intentionally discriminatory, but that the data about older individuals is more readily available, organized differently, etc. For example, it may be that older individuals already are “known entities” to the system b/c they have utilized services like Medicare. Just a thought.

Today I tried again…I successfully walked through the process from start to finish. I still don’t like the site design (it is using funky and complex functionality to display the forms, which I found to be jerky in transitioning…) and the site still managed to leave me with a few “what do I do now?” moments…

But it is all done, I’ve signed up for the Keystone Health Plan East HMO Silver Proactive. Cost is less than $230/mo. (unless the premium changes, which I have heard happens…). This may be a decent jump for young folks in good health compared to pre-Obamacare, but for me it is a huge drop. Since I have pre-existing conditions Keystone would have charged me around $600-$700/mo. for health insurance…which was just impossible for me (and thus I have been without health insurance for over a year now).

Ohh, but the real reason I wanted to tell you about this is b/c something bad happens if you don’t have health insurance by the end of March…which I think most people know (I know a fine…and I think “open enrollment” closes which means you can’t get healthcare until the next “open enrollment” occurs – which might not be for a few months), but perhaps more important – if you want to have coverage as of April 1st you need to be enrolled in a plan by March 15th. If you are registered after March 15th, your insurance policy won’t “start” until May 1st!

The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith: Book Review (Author: Carl Gallups)

On the 25th I wrote a number of books I picked up for the Amazon Kindle that were on sale. One of them was Carl Gallups’ The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith. I used to be big into apologetics, but haven’t done much reading in this area recently – this had a humorous title, so I thought it might be a good / different read on the topic. I finished the book last night (the 28th), not b/c it was such an amazing read but b/c I only had seven days to return the book to Amazon (their return policy) and I wanted to return it…

The book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, so I’m the odd one out here, but I can only give it a 2/4 star rating – and I’m hesitant to give it that. Not because the book doesn’t have a number of good points, analogies, etc. but b/c to me apologetics books are held to an exceedingly high standard – and while I might suggest someone read a “good enough” book in other areas, I really want them to read the best when it comes to apologetics – and I want to read the best.

“So, Mr. Cranky-Pants, why didn’t you like Mr. Gallups’ book? Did it have any redeeming qualities?”

The book has a number of redeeming qualities – while it is not the humorous approach to apologetics I had hoped for, it is a lay man’s approach to apologetics – that is it is written to be understood by individuals who aren’t “intellectuals” so to speak. This sort of approach is needed – try reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict to see a more “intellectual” approach.

Gallups offers a number of “plain English” definitions of concepts and terms which are used within apologetics, philosophy, science, and theology which are quite clear and helpful. At the same time, sometimes when he engages science (e.g. abiogenesis) his explanations sound good, but don’t provide enough explanation or background to allow someone to really, intelligently talk about the subject. At least, I didn’t feel after reading these sections that I was equipped to talk about the subject.

Front cover of The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith by Carl Gallups.
Front cover of The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith by Carl Gallups.

I also regretted that while Gallup offered the initial stance of the atheist/agnostic and then provided a Christian rebuttal, he always ended with a “conclusive” answer proving the Christian perspective. In my opinion, this is rarely, the case. I want to know – now that I have offered a rebuttal – what will the individual say now? How will they counter this claim? I don’t think they are suddenly going to say, “Ohh, you know what? You are right. I’ve been a scientist for twenty years and built my work upon this concept and now you – a lay man (what I am in the sciences) – have come and exposed an obvious flaw that I didn’t notice for twenty years…”

I did enjoy Gallups quotations at the beginning of each chapter and also found various cultural references he made interesting – as I am entirely unfamiliar with them. For example, at one juncture he suggests that some people “call this self-centered condition of the human a viper in a diaper.” Really? I’ve never heard anyone say that! Its kind of funny, but really?

At times Gallups makes controversial statements which are unnecessary to his argument and thereby weaken the integrity of his overall argument. For example, he writes, “The secular worldview declares that homosexuality, fornication, and adultery are natural and, therefore, acceptable parts of the human experience…All the while, the devastating effects of each of these perverse activities have been observed and cataloged since time immemorial.” Granted, most individuals will readily acknowledge the detrimental effects of adultery – but the topics of homosexuality and fornication are much more controversial when one is speaking outside of evangelical Christian circles. Gallups raises these topics, which means his readers may as well, and then provides no substantive evidence for his arguments – thus rabbit trailing off the main topic (apologetics) and leaving himself and his readers exposed.

Some of Gallups statements about the secular individual seem simplistic and untrue – for example, Gallups states, “If you subscribe to the secular worldview, your life will be lived with its exclusive purpose being to survive.” I don’t think this is true – certainly not on an individual level – perhaps on a species level – but even there, it seems to me that individuals have a much wider and nobler range of motives than simple survival, as evidenced by their self-sacrificial acts, and those acts certainly aren’t exclusively committed by Christians.

Gallups explanation of the heavens and how these are to be understood theologically and scientifically is worthwhile – though I wish that he had provided some footnotes to back up his explanations on this topic. This is also one of the first areas where another real problem sticks out – Gallups is writing for the common man, but chooses to use the KJV when including Scriptures. This makes the reading rough (suddenly there are “shalt” and “thou” and so on spattered through an otherwise contemporary text) and forces him to explain Scriptures whose meaning would be clear if he had used a more contemporaneous translation.[1]

Gallups uses illuminating and humorously simple illustrations to explain certain concepts – the “fish in the pond” explanation for the reality of unseen reality (e.g. supernatural) is quite good…and it isn’t his only useful illustration of this type. For example, at one point he describes how fish might feel about the idea that there is a “supernatural” reality outside of their pond (believing instead that the pond is the limits of reality): “Those who have tried to penetrate the barrier above us either have seen nothing but blurriness or have not returned to us at all. To suggest there is anything more powerful outside of our world that has any fishy presence or power to it at all is…well…ridiculous.”

There is one section that really, really bothers me. Gallups suggests that we can prove (absolutely, irrefutably) the truthfulness of Scripture by the nation of Israel. He says that God explained through Moses before the people ever entered the promised land that they would fall away from him, be dispersed throughout the world, and then return again – and he takes this as occurring in the Babylonian exile and the return fulfilled in 1948 with the establishment of the Jewish nation.

I don’t disagree with Gallups understanding of Moses’ statements, but I do think the emphasis he puts upon this “prophecy” is disconcerting. The prophecy itself is so generic that it doesn’t seem that hard for it to be fulfilled, and to suggest we can know that God exists based upon its fulfillment concerns me. It essentially says, you will go here, be kicked out of here for being bad, and then you’ll be back.

What really concerns me though is that he suggests that Israel was not a nation after the Babylonian exile until 1948 – which greatly strengthens his argument – if it were true. He writes, “Keep in mind that by this time in history, called the Roman period, Israel had not been a nation since the Babylonians conquered them almost five hundred years earlier.” I’m not so sure about that…There were these guys called the Maccabees who overthrew the declining Seleucids (Greek) and established the Hasmonean Dynasty.

Gallups may have an explanation for this – but the fact that he glosses over this problem in his text without so much as a mention makes me feel as if he is “smoothing over” history to make it fit his preconceived notions – which is not what an apologist should do. I don’t think this was Gallups intent (Scripture calls us to believe/hope the best) but the passage does read that way, at least to me, and I’d guess to many agnostics/atheists who are familiar with biblical history as well.

At another later juncture Gallups writes, “Without a supreme reason, we have no supreme purpose to life, and we have no real answers to the deepest problems of life. Life becomes relegated to the survival of the fittest and nothing more. Furthermore, if we have no supreme purpose or reason, then we do not have supreme morality. Without supreme morality, humans are no different from any other kind of animal.”

Earlier in his work, Gallups explains a straw man, and complains throughout the work that atheists/agnostics oftentimes setup straw men against Christian arguments (which is, unfortunately, true), yet I feel at this and several other junctures that he sets up straw men as well. I know (though I have not read) that Richard Dawkins (whom Gallups is familiar with as he quotes him at several junctures) has written on this subject (how moral values and purpose for life exist for the atheist) and it is disconcerting to me that Gallups does not offer up at least a footnote acknowledging these explanations for life offered by atheists/agnostics.

Gallups also argues that this life is a “boot camp” in preparation for the next life. I know this is a popular Christian view, but someone has to show me the Scriptural support for this perspective – I’m not aware of it. I know that it makes sense, but I am hesitant to offer up as more than hypothesis ideas which make sense but aren’t explicitly in Scripture – since God could have done it that way, but He might have done it some other way – perhaps even some other way we haven’t yet thought of.

Furthermore, I find the illustration itself disturbing – yes,  a drill sergeant works folks hard, they suffer pain, it is horrific sometimes – but they come out the other side…and those who don’t make it through are sent home – not shuffled off to eternal hell.

He comments in the same section, “Therefore, when you reach the point in your walk with the Lord where you can say in all honesty that you do not care if He ever blesses you again or answers another prayer–you will serve Him anyway–then you are well on your way to graduating boot camp.” This statement makes me feel sick. It does remind me of Romans 9, but I insist that Romans 9 must be read in conjunction with 10 and 11. God could demand our obedience simply due to his position and power – but I don’t think He does – instead He shows off His beauty and we are attracted to it and it is unfading and unchanging. For more on this subject see John Piper’s Desiring God.

Gallups offers a chapter up on the problem of evil which I found little comfort in…but then again, the problem of evil is the greatest intellectual/theological struggle I have ever faced – it haunts me since my childhood and I expect will haunt me till I die.

Then there is how Gallups sometimes puts Christians in an undeservedly positive light, for example, he writes, “On the other hand, in the preponderance of Christian schools and/or home school coursework, the students are taught the in-depth proposals of evolution theory along with the theories of Creation and Intelligent Design. Rather than being indoctrinated, the student who is taught both theories of origins and life is receiving an honest education.”

Yikes! I spent much of my education in private Christian schools and homeschooled…and no, the curriculum was not an even-handed presentation of the two perspectives…and yes, I used several of the most well-known, respected, and popular Christian curriculums.

Evolution is presented, but only in order to be refuted by Creationism. Evolution is never considered a viable option for the believing student within these curriculums. If a Christian curriculum really wants to convince me they are being even-handed, let an evolutionist write the part on evolution and a creationist on creation and then let each write a rebuttal to the other and let the students make up their own minds.

One statement he made that kind of blew me away (in a good way) regards the anthropic principle (the universe’s seeming fine tuning to man’s existence), “Consider this: What would happen if all the saltwater systems were removed from our earth? In time, we would die. What if all the freshwater sources were removed? The answer is the same. What if all the animals were removed or if all the insects were gone or if all the plant life disappeared? Again, we would eventually die. Now think about this: What if humans and only humans were removed from the planet Everything would continue. The ecology is perfect. The system would sustain itself without us.” I don’t find this particularly convincing evidence for the anthropic principle – but it is fascinating to me that so many variables (many beyond those he lists) could result in the death of life on the world – but the removal of earth’s ruling class (humans) would not result in any such detriment (in fact, we could say things would probably get exponentially better for the planet).

I should not that while I have taken Gallups to task at various points for failing to offer up legitimate counter-arguments from atheist/agnostic proponents, it does appear at many junctures that he attempts to do just that – quoting from an evolutionary author to prove his point but then adding, “To be fair…” and explaining how the individual would explain his material to support rather than contradict evolution and so on.

Finally, I’m going to skip to the end a bit, and just remove that the End Times section is especially frightening to me. He again centers his argument around the reconstituted nation of Israel and then also throws in a list of nations (including Iraq and Libya among others) that will be part of this end time scenario. This sort of specific prediction and claiming of the end times has always concerned me. Gallups acknowledges that Christians have believed in every generation that the end was coming during their lifetime – but Gallups still insists that this generation is different – that now conditions are right. I believe Jesus could come back any time – maybe today, but maybe ten thousand years from now. I think making predictions like this (even without a date) opens Christians up to unnecessary criticism.

To summarize/conclude – the book has a number of interesting facets, it attempts something which should be done (a common man’s approach to apologetics) but it fails in the fairness of its presentation at some junctures and rests upon unstable premises at other junctures. Finally, and I didn’t mention this before, the book is almost completely lacking in footnotes or bibliography. I understand this was written for the common man, and probably end-notes would make more sense so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed – but the number of claims made without any substantive proof (even though I know from reading elsewhere, that Gallups is correct in at least some of these) scares the dickens (Charles Dickens? What are you doing in there?) out of me.

I returned the book to Amazon for a refund. I wanted to like it and at times I did – but overall, I just couldn’t sell it to myself. Sorry.

  1. [1]sorry, I’m not a KJV-only advocate. I am a KJV advocate in the sense that I think it is a worthwhile translation to read alongside other translations…and I have spent some significant time in both the KJV and NKJV.

Margin Call (R): Movie Review.

[Okay, this is really only like 25% movie review, 75% my hypothesizing about systemic ills that cause significantly societal dysfunction]

Margin Call is a 2011 film with an a great ensemble cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Aasif Mandvi amongst others. It provides an “inside look” at a Wall Street finances firm during the 2008 financial crisis – albeit a fictional one.

Margin Call - a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.
Margin Call – a movie about the 2008 financial crisis.

The film contains no violence or nudity[1], it does, however, include a boatload of profanity – including religious…and I mean pervasive profanity.

If you are looking for a film that helps explain what happened in 2008 and perhaps one that will rile you up a bit, this is a good film to select – though it is too nuanced to be the sort of rage flick that allows us to direct all our hatred towards abominably evil characters – for that you’ll have to look to  Uwe Boll’s controversial and simplistic film Assault on Wall Street (2013, R).

Margin Call does demonstrate the greed and dishonesty which allowed the collapse to occur. It also highlights the way in which extremely intelligent individuals have been leaving jobs which are highly productive for society (e.g. engineering space craft and bridges) to these financial trading careers which have questionable value for society. It manages to enrage us with the “golden parachutes” many of the “higher-ups” secure for themselves even as they cut their employees off at the knees and leave the common man holding the bag and towards the end John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) characters highlights that the 2008 crash is not a one-time occurrence, but something which has been occurring with great regularity throughout history – and yet has not been stopped and is not being stopped now.

At the same time, it calls us, the common people, to account for our complicity in what occurred. In a powerful scene where Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) are driving together, Seth notes how devastating the crash will be for “real people” – to which Will explains why Seth should not feel sympathy for the “real people” who essentially pay the financial traders to abstract their dirty work – so they can feel better about themselves. Here is the relevant dialogue (you’ll see what I mean about pervasive profanity):

Seth: “—-, this is going to really affect people.”

Will: “Yeah, it’s gonna affect people like me.”

Seth: “No, Will, real people.”

Will: “—–, Seth. Listen, if you really want to do this with your life, you have to believe you are necessary, and you are. People want to live like this–in their cars and big ——- houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got out fingers on the scales in their favor.”

“I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really ——- fair really ——- quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do, but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from.”

“Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. So —- ’em. —- normal people.”

“You know the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes —- up? They’re going to crucify us for being too reckless. But if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track, well then, the same people are going to laugh till they piss their pants ‘case we’re gonna look like the biggest ——- God ever let through the door.”

In other words, we desire a certain standard of living, so we engage in questionable practices in order to sustain that level of living – but we remove ourselves from conscious involvement in this unethical behavior by “handing off” the dirty work to the financial traders. We praise them when they do well for us and are horrified when they fail us and/or act unethically.

I have a developing hypothesis about evil. In my experience I find fewer evil people than I expect and more systems which propagate evil. I do not mean to excuse the financial traders for their unethical actions, but only note that removing the unethical (or evil) individuals will not rectify the problem – why? Because the system still exists and the system points incalculable pressure upon the individual to act unethically – thus creating more unethical individuals, which will, naturally, result in more unethical behavior.

I need to read up more on economics and specifically on the stock market – but I tentatively hypothesize that we’d need a fundamental change in the way the stock market operates in order to rectify (at least significantly) this system. This could perhaps be achieved by making investments in stocks somehow (I don’t know how) primarily about deriving profits from profit sharing dividends, rather than the current scenario in which much of what is bought/sold is done so under the philosophy of buy low, sell high – which creates an unsustainable pressure upon companies to continually increase profits (or risk the rage of the stockholder).

The ironic thing is, if I’m right, we are cutting each other off at the knees. Company X lays off 5,000 employees to increase its profits so stockholders don’t sell…the employees are righteously angry. Who are those stockholders? Well, many of them are from Company Y which just cut 5,000 employees to keep their profits increasing (and who are their stockholders? Why people from Company X!). Obviously this is a vast oversimplification…but it seems to me we are demanding increased profits from those we invest in yet at the same time demanding that the companies act in more generous, considerate ways – and in so doing we ask the impossible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts? As I said, I’m no expert on economics or the stock market.

  1. [1]Though two of the characters are briefly at a strip joint, the film (amazingly) chooses not to throw in nudity to attract additional viewers

Some Pretty Awesome Deals from Amazon for eBooks.

Amazon is holding their “The Big Deal” which goes through February 2nd and offers up to 85% off over 600 books. When my brother told me about it, I was hesitant. I’m trying to pair down my library – but ebooks do take up less space than physical books…so maybe I’d take a peak.

I knew that if I did get any books I only wanted the best I knew I wanted to read. Everything else could wait – I’m really trying to only get the books I am going to read and read soon. So, here is my list…of those I bought as well of those I thought looked quite interesting (and actually, I left a huge number off my list, b/c I didn’t want to type all day).

I Bought It…

On Relationships

Self-Help

Counseling

History

Politics

Ministry